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A Day in the Life (3)… [Biochemistry] by Cambridge

Another biochemist sharing his experience as an exchange student.

[by Patrick ’09]

I am another Biochemist coming from MIT to Cambridge. I am not nearly as advanced as Kathy, so I have no lab work at all. Instead, I take a lecture course, hashing out the basics. Differences between the two educational systems
are very fundamental.

As Kathy has said, Biology as conceived by Cambridge is about knowing a vast set of facts. Moreover, this set is rather rigidly defined for undergrads; it’s an old philosophy, which says that all “educated” people should have a common foundation. Ask any young Cantabridgian to expound on collagen, but s/he may not know how to use a pipette:

Cambridge teaches passion. It assumes that tools will appear if the idea is planted in you. Learn about poetry, and you will acquire literacy to write your own.

At MIT, students are equiped to look pretty in the lab. For example, I can pour a gel, then set up a PCR and eat lunch before the gel sets. I understand not how or why. Last year, I finished an entire project on a protein, knowing only
its name and that it “caused cancer.” Fact. It was Cambridge that finally taught me what the protein was.

MIT teaches process. It assumes that inspiration will follow if the tools are laid before you. Learn the alphabet, and you will be moved to produce poetry.

Clearly, both schools are missing something. Knowledge and practice do exist in both places, but it seems we can only focus on one at a time.


“So, which has better academics, MIT or Cambridge?”

To me, the question is meaningless. My second subjet – Zoology – has no equivalent at MIT. It’s not cutting edge, and it doesn’t cure cancer. But it’s a fascinating subject, which I doubt I can explore as deeply without a department to guide me. This is what I will remember most about Cambridge.

As for Biochemistry, I hope students in either country end up in the same place as professionals. Any differences leading up to that point are just differences in order.


One thing I notice about Cambridge students is that few things stand in their way of enjoying life. Along with parties and such, I am talking about sports, activities, and “cultural enrichment.” Last week, I went to an unpublicised recital at Trinity College, where I randomly met five members of my own college. Last term, students hosted a Chinese New Year gala on a scale that we would not expect at MIT.

I know these are poor excuses for not studying. But as Justin said, Cambridge students keep an eye on the long-term, and that includes learning to retain knowledge while leaving enough slack to not hate yourself after doing it. (I don’t care how much satisfaction you get from 4am psets – they are not “fun” in the strictest sense.)


Still thinking about CME? Consider this: If you love your side of the Atlantic and don’t want to learn any other way, then be happy to stay where you are. If you are intrigued by change, then come along. Bring optimism but not
expectations. Look for something completely different. You’ll regard MIT with fresh eyes and renewed spirits. Plus, your friends will be terribly impressed with you.

13 responses to “A Day in the Life (3)… [Biochemistry]”

  1. Isshak says:

    What’s up with all that spam, here and in the waitlist post…

  2. Anonymous says:

    “I can pour a gel, then set up a PCR and eat lunch before the gel sets. I understand not how or why. Last year, I finished an entire project on a protein, knowing only
    its name and that it “caused cancer.”” Are you kidding me? Is this what you get at MIT?

    “Ask any young Cantabridgian to expound on collagen, but s/he may not know how to use a pipette:”

  3. Anonymous says:

    “Cambridge teaches passion.”
    And MIT doesn’t? Passion is developed, not taught!

    “Learn about poetry, and you will acquire literacy to write your own.”
    Haha! Good one. If you really believe this, then something is wrong about your thinking…It is like saying by listening to someone playing violin will make you be able to play one too even if you never play one in your entire life.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I agree! There is something fishy here. Admissions Officers? Will you please monitor the articles?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like it would be a great idea to study at both schools! =) That way, you have both “passion” and “process” to work with.

  6. Steven '12 says:

    I’m confused as to what the big deal is in the other responses, Patrick was just explaining the differences in his experience between the two universities.

    I thought it was an informative post. smile

    For getting into grad school, would it be better to do some hard-core research your junior year at MIT, or to study abroad?

  7. Chris says:

    I thought this post was informative as well, not really sure why all the anons are upset. Cambridge sounds like a wonderful place to study, if for nothing else than it’s alternative values.

  8. Alexander says:

    I think those anons are trolls, never mind them.
    Thanks for the post, Patrick, very interesting.

  9. Patrick '09 says:

    Re: Steven
    Interesting question you’ve brought up about grad school CVs. Many students (esp. premeds) struggle with this. I’ll ask it slightly differently: how much research (incl. summers) so you need to do to prove your worth? Having reached that amount, do you still have 2 terms to spare? And do you think you will have more to show for study abroad or with a year of additional UROPs?

    A very important lesson I’ve learned is that good educations exist at home and elsewhere, but neither side deserves to be complacent about it. People like our Anons reside at the core of MIT – obviously very important – and then a certain minority (like CMEs) take great pains to spice things up. I think I have improved myself by doing what I do, and if other people want to take me seriously about it, then that’s a bonus. I hope you keep thinking about it!

  10. Anonymous says:

    if u had the option, which Uni would people like to do their whole course at?

  11. Pedro says:

    I agree with Chris about this post being very interesting (btw…thanks Patrick!), but I guess finding passion is much more of a subjective matter than it looks like. Of course there are obvious differences in both courses as you stated, such as MIT offering a much more technical course than Cambridge, but the university will only show you various ways, whether you take them or not is a personal decision and that is when the importance of knowing different universities comes into place, since you get the opportunity to know more of those ways. I think each of those ways inspires some kind of passion on some of us, so it is up to ourselves to search for the right one. Go for it Patrick.